Kent St.-Arkansas St. Preview
Both coaches for the teams in GoDaddy.com Bowl have left for other jobs, although one of them will be sticking around for the penultimate game of the bowl season.
It's not unusual for teams in this Mobile, Ala., game to be dealing with coaching changes, with this marking the fifth straight year that at least one coach has been unavailable after taking another job, but it's the first time other schools have hired both.
Hazell has accepted the job at Purdue, but he wanted the opportunity to try to lead Kent State (11-2) to its first-ever bowl victory. This is the school's first postseason appearance since losing to Tampa in the Tangerine Bowl in 1972, when Alabama coach Nick Saban played for the Golden Flashes.
"I had two goals when I went to Kent State," Hazell said. "One was to win a (Mid-American Conference) championship, and the other was to go to a bowl game, so this is too big to miss."
The Golden Flashes' only other bowl was a loss to Delaware in the 1954 Refrigerator Bowl.
"Making history at Kent State, that's a big thing for all of us to leave all our names behind," tight end Tim Erjavec said. "And we have a chance to make history to win the first bowl game at Kent State so that's something we're really looking forward to do."
Arkansas State (9-3) won't have coach Gus Malzahn, who will take over at Auburn. The Red Wolves were 10-2 last season heading into this bowl when Hugh Freeze departed to coach Mississippi, and they lost 38-20 to Northern Illinois.
Defensive coordinator John Thompson will serve as Arkansas State's interim coach this time. Malzahn will take offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee with him to Auburn, but Lashlee will serve in that position for this contest.
"I am thrilled that coach Lashlee will be our offensive coordinator for the bowl game, and I know he has embraced this opportunity," Thompson said. "At this point, our offensive and defensive staffs remain intact."
The departures created an unusual situation at the Dec. 13 GoDaddy.com Bowl news conference with no head coaches available to represent these programs.
Arkansas State has hired former Texas co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin to replace Malzahn.
Kent State is bringing in Arkansas defensive coordinator and former Golden Flashes defensive back Paul Haynes as its next coach, but the school is happy Hazell will be in Mobile.
"There was an outpouring from our team and our community that if we had the chance to have coach Hazell in our bowl, they wanted me to make the right decision," athletic director Joel Nielsen said.
"I give Purdue a lot of credit allowing him to have dual roles here for about a month and allow us to have that for our student-athletes. That was really important to our team. I talked to the team and the captains and it was real important to have this staff involved."
Kent State will be trying to shake off the disappointment of seeing its 10-game win streak end Nov. 30 with a 44-37 double-overtime loss to then-No. 19 Northern Illinois in the MAC championship. The Golden Flashes battled back from a 14-point deficit with five minutes left in regulation only to fail to match the Huskies' touchdown in the second extra session.
Running backs Dri Archer and Trayion Durham combined for 200.0 yards per game on the ground to lead a rushing attack ranked 16th in the country. The duo had 29 of the Golden Flashes' 35 rushing scores.
Kent State's passing game produced the nation's 11th-lowest yardage average at 162.9 per game behind senior quarterback Spencer Keith.
When Harsin takes over next season, he will have to replace two-time Sun Belt Player of the Year Ryan Aplin, who leads the nation's 17th-ranked offense. The quarterback had a school-record 23 touchdown passes and just four interceptions, helping the Red Wolves to seven straight wins since their lone defeat in conference play to Western Kentucky on Sept. 29.
Aplin has thrown for 10,545 yards and will finish his career as the Sun Belt's all-time leading passer. He also has 1,761 yards and 31 TDs rushing.
Running back David Oku, a transfer from Tennessee, was second in the conference with 1,024 yards on the ground along with a Sun Belt-high 15 rushing touchdowns.